Sunday Religion, Inspired by Saturday Nights
Beside the altar of the storefront church on Fillmore Street stand an electric piano, two basses, a drum kit and three microphones. The hymnal, such as it is, consists of a music book, open to a piece titled “Blues For Bechet.” And on the side wall hangs an icon of the congregation’s patron saint, a golden corona circling his head, as he holds a tenor saxophone with flames in its bell.
This being a house of jazz as well as of God, the Sunday morning service starts on Sunday afternoon, early rising for any musician who played three sets on Saturday night. As the worshipers trickle in, whether regulars from the neighborhood or pilgrims from abroad, a call comes from behind the rear wall: “Let the procession be formed.”
Then the ministers and deacons and acolytes stride into view, led by a rangy man with a tenor sax dangling from a strap around his clerical collar. He is Archbishop Franzo Wayne King, founder and pastor of this faith community, the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church.
For the next three hours, the service proceeds with an aesthetic that is half jam session and half revival meeting. A traditional Christian liturgy — including the Lord’s Prayer and readings from a Gospel and an Epistle — takes places amid a series of intense, almost incantatory performances of Coltrane compositions.
“The kind of music you listen to is the person you become,” Mr. King says in his sermon. “When you listen to John Coltrane, you become a disciple of the anointed of God.”
In the third row, Mikkel Holst understands. He has traveled from Copenhagen to San Francisco in no small part for this church.
“It must be one of the best jazz experiences of my life,” Mr. Holst says after the service. “The funniest thing about it is, I’m not religious. But when I put on John Coltrane, a chill goes down my spine. I was thinking, if I lived here, I could see myself belonging.”
So the Coltrane church is not a gimmick or a forced alloy of nightclub music and ethereal faith. Its message of deliverance through divine sound is actually quite consistent with Coltrane’s own experience and message.
During a fervently creative life of just 41 years, Coltrane produced a body of performances and compositions that have remained deeply influential among jazz musicians and listeners, as well as devotees of improvisational rock. By now, 40 years after his death, he rests firmly in the canon of American music.
In both implicit and explicit ways, Coltrane also functioned as a religious figure. Addicted to heroin in the 1950s, he quit cold turkey, and later explained that he had heard the voice of God during his anguishing withdrawal. In 1964, he recorded “A Love Supreme,” an album of original praise music in a free-jazz mode. Studying Eastern religions as well as Christianity, he went on to release more avant-garde devotional music on “Ascension,” “Om” and “Meditations.”
In 1966, an interviewer in Japan asked Coltrane what he hoped to be in five years, and Coltrane replied, “A saint.”
Franzo Wayne King, then, was simply the person who took Coltrane at his word. Growing up in Los Angeles, the son of a Pentecostal minister, he knew firsthand the importance of music in African-American Christianity. His own tastes, however, ran more to James Brown than jazz.
That started changing the day in the early 1960s when Mr. King’s older brother, Charles, played him the Coltrane recording of “My Favorite Things.” Mr. King began to explore and appreciate Coltrane’s earlier work with Miles Davis. Even so, when a friend showed him the album “A Love Supreme,” Mr. King read the very religious liner notes and decided the music could not be for him.
“I didn’t want to get on a God trip,” he recalled. “If I wanted that, I’d go to church. Because in my upbringing there was an erect divide between jazz and blues and the church. You had to choose one.”
Or so he believed until 1966, when he took his girlfriend, Marina, on her birthday to hear Coltrane at a San Francisco club, the Jazz Workshop. A buddy who was the doorman seated them up front, and there Coltrane’s trademark “sheets of sound” washed over them, almost literally.
“It was my sound baptism,” Mr. King recalled.
In the wake of Coltrane’s death and newly married to Marina, Mr. King created a small congregation called Yardbird Temple in reference to the nickname of another jazz great, Charlie Parker. At that point, the followers worshiped Coltrane as an earthly incarnation of God, while considering Parker a kind of John the Baptist equivalent.
Such a theology, of course, put Mr. King and his flock outside the boundaries of Christianity. He moved back inside them in the early 1980s, when he met George Duncan Hinkson, an archbishop in the African Orthodox Church. The denomination, founded in the late 19th century in South Africa, took root in America largely through Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement. Its adherents worship a black Christ.
Ordained by Archbishop Hinkson, Mr. King made the necessary concession to become a member congregation. “We demoted Coltrane from being God,” he put it. “But the agreement was that he could come into sainthood and be the patron of our church.”
As such, the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane Church has operated for a quarter-century. Mr. King’s wife and several of their children participate in the services as “ministers of sound” and have played at several European jazz festivals. The visitors over the years have included Coltrane’s widow, Alice Coltrane, and the jazz-influenced rock guitarist Carlos Santana.
The church combines its unique hagiography and soundtrack with staples of black Christianity, from personal “witnessing” to various forms of social action. In its previous location, the congregation ran a vegetarian soup kitchen; its current place, which lacks a full kitchen, distributes clothing and nonperishable foods.
Mr. King’s daughter, Wanika King-Stephens, is the host of a weekly radio show of Coltrane music, “Uplift,” on a local station, KPOO-FM.
Francis Davis, an author who attended the church while researching a coming Coltrane biography, “Sheets of Sound,” said, “I kind of went there expecting, I don’t know, snake handlers or something crazy.”
Mr. Davis continued: “But it wasn’t like that at all. These are good people They’re doing what churches do. Which is feed the hungry, minister to people’s emotional and spiritual needs. And if you’re looking for free-jazz solos on a Sunday morning, this is the place.”